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La's Orchestra Saves the World    by Alexander McCall Smith order for
La's Orchestra Saves the World
by Alexander McCall Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2009 (2009)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Alexander Mccall Smith, author of the vastly popular No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series as well as The Sunday Philosophy Club and 44 Scotland Street series, Isabel Dalhousie novels, and various excellent children's series, now brings readers an unusual and gentle World War II tale, La's Orchestra Saves the World.

This story intersperses the daily life of the time - and how it was lived by one intelligent woman, Lavender, 'La' for short - with the author's compelling insights into some of the big questions we all have on how to live a decent life, and to make even a small difference. It begins with two men returning to a place they remember as boys, and commenting on La's life there, 'A very big life led', as they tell us, in a 'sleepy little village.'

La's mother died when she was fifteen, and she began to study English literature at Cambridge in 1929. She rejects the advice of her tutor, Dr. Price, that women should 'live their lives as if men didn't exist.' She rejects her friend Janey's convictions about why they were in 'a time of crisis.' La thinks for herself. When a good-looking young man, Richard Stone, pursues her, they drift into marriage. Two years later, he leaves her for a Frenchwoman.

La flees her London life for 'a sleepy village with incomprehensible locals', a Sussex property given to her by her father-in-law. She buys a car, gets to know the community, deals with an intruder in her home, forgives Richard, ponders the seemingly inconceivable possibility of another war - something she considers 'an abomination' - and wonders what she can do to help.

La joins the Women's Land Army and cycles every day to help an elderly farmer in her area with his chickens. After an air force officer drops by her house, she helps him place disabled Polish pilot Feliks Dabrowski as a helper to the same farmer - she feels responsible for Feliks 'Because he was in need and he was about to cross her path.' And she gets the idea to start an orchestra, with locals and air force staff, as a morale booster.

All works out as planned, except that La is strongly attracted to Feliks (who joins her orchestra and helps with her garden), while wondering more and more whether or not he is a German spy - and if so, what she should do about it, given that 'this war was about evil, and the innocent could well be the agents of evil.' There are misunderstandings on all sides, but when La is ready to give up, she's reminded of how much her little orchestra means to the community.

It's many years after the war that La drops her role as an observer of life, 'somewhere in the wings, watching what is happening on the stage, in a play in which I have no real part.' By the time La leaves the wings, she has won readers' hearts and we're cheering her on. I highly recommend La's Orchestra Saves the World to you as an elegant, heartwarming and compelling read.

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